In recent years, dozens of delegations of Israeli public opinion leaders have traveled abroad, mainly to the United States. The objective was to have these Israelis become familiar with the varied and vibrant Jewish communities across the continent. Most of the delegations were organized by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, in cooperation with ‘Gesher’; additional delegations represented bodies that promote pluralistic discourse or liberal Judaism.
It makes sense that Liberal Jewish organizations are the ones who are promoting this exposure: Only 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox, therefore the non-Orthodox bodies have an interest in connecting to senior Israeli officials, who know nothing about them. These organizations want Israelis to understand the unique way of life and richness of Reform, Conservative or non-Orthodox communities. The question is: did this complex message actually get across to the Israelis participating in these missions, or should the current discourse be changed?
We may have to change the discourse if there is to be any change in Israel-Jewish Diaspora relations. Israeli research institutes and other Jewish bodies have recently been trying to find a magic solution to what is called the “crisis” between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. (In my opinion, by the way, there is no real “crisis”, because the connection between Israel and the Diaspora is so tenuous that perhaps these relations need to be redefined.)
The Israel Democracy Institute convened a small forum of senior academics and politicians last week to discuss the crisis with world Jewry. A day later, the Anti-Defamation League held a similar discussion at their conference in Tel Aviv. Other bodies have been writing position papers on the topic and will be publishing them in the next few months. But a new study recently published by the Reut Institute brings a unique and different voice, which I think needs to be heard.
Reut’s conclusion is very different from that of other think tanks and organizations; In conversation, the CEO of the institute, Eran Shayshon told me that “most Diaspora organizations that deal with Israel-Diaspora connections come from the non-Orthodox Jewish world, in an effort to ‘sell’ pluralistic Judaism to secular Israelis.” He said that this is the mistake of the Jewish leadership in the Diaspora who try to connect Israel with ‘Pluralistic Judaism’ even though most secular Israelis are uninterested in Judaism.
The institute is right: organizations dealing with Diaspora affairs are mostly connected to pluralistic Jewish streams and do not speak the language of secular Israelis. It’s not only secular Israelis who aren’t getting it, but it alienates Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist, ultra-Orthodox, and traditional Jews in Israel.
The root of this mistake appears to be the confusion that stems from the fact that secular Israelis often criticize the official rabbinical establishment. But are they interested in the layout of the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall or the issue of conversion in Israel? The answer is no, and therefore these issues do not appear to be on the agenda of public opinion leaders in Israel, politicians or the media.
Moreover, those who spearhead the demand to establish an egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall are the heads of the non-Orthodox streams, which is a source of great antagonism among most of those Israelis who lean towards the Orthodox or are Orthodox themselves (according to the PEW survey in Israel, only 5 percent of Israelis attend services at Reform or Conservative synagogues).
In an op-ed written by Reut’s Shayshon together with President Emeritus of Hillel, Avraham Infeld, the two argued that “the main idea of Zionism is weakened when Israel refuses to fulfill its mission as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people.”
“Unfortunately,” they wrote, “the prevailing view in Israel [on the issue of Diaspora Jewry] is a combination of ignorance and arrogance regarding life in the Diaspora, and relates to the economic and political support of world Jewry in Israel for granted, ignoring its needs and concerns.”
The Reut study recommended, among other things, that the connection between Diaspora Jewry and Israel be treated as a matter of national security. “The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, in cooperation with the National Security Council, will be responsible for monitoring the relevant trends and information and feeding them into all governmental systems,” the research stated. Another interesting recommendation is “the duty to consult before legislation” — that is, the government and the Knesset must relate to the fact that legislation in specific areas can influence Diaspora Jews, and therefore address this dimension in the course of drafting new laws.
The last recommendation is perhaps most important and significant: designing a representative body in Israel for Diaspora Jews to voice their opinions on current issues. According to Reut’s proposal, this representation will be in touch with the President of Israel, the Knesset and Government.
There are other organizations that are currently promoting a similar but much more daring initiative: the appointment of ten Knesset members to represent world Jewry. The idea has existed for years, but perhaps now we are ripe for its realization.
Zvika Klein is an award-winning Israeli journalist, covering Diaspora affairs for the Makor Rishon newspaper and the NRG360 news site.